The following article is from our
newsletter, Botanically Correct.
Many years ago, when I was a college student in Santa Cruz, I noticed a very pretty small tree growing in a front yard. It was quite dense, and had showy golden berries – somewhat like an odd form of Pyracantha. Its
hanging clusters of blue flowers, however, told me that this was not a pyracantha (or anything else in the Rose Family), but something else
altogether. Since I liked both blue flowers and uncommon plants, I "hit the books" in order to find out exactly what this plant was. That's when I first found out that there's a lot more to the Verbena Family than garden perennials –my "mystery plant" was a Duranta!
The genus Duranta is a group of 17 species of shrubs and small trees that are native from southern Florida to Mexico and South America. Though very useful in the landscape, they are often overlooked, and much less common than they ought to be. In recent years, however, there have been quite a few new durantas introduced into the nursery trade (including some really beautiful variegated
cultivars), so you can expect to see more of them. Finally, it's time for everyone to get to know this colorful group of plants!
By Any Other Name
If you've never heard of durantas, you are not alone. Maybe it's the name. There are also a few common names though, like "Pigeon Berry" and "Golden Dewdrop" – but neither of these ever sounded that great to me. "Sky Flower" (most durantas have sky-blue flowers) might be the best common name so far. The botanical name of the most common (smaller-leaved) species is also somewhat noteworthy, having been changed from Duranta repens to Duranta erecta (is this a plant with schizophrenia, or is it just the botanists?!). Further, for a number of our larger-leaved cultivars, it is difficult to assign a species name at all, since they appear to have characteristics of both the aforementioned species and the larger-leaved Brazilian D. stenostachya. With all of these names so indefinite, perhaps it's better just to separate the durantas into large-leaved ones and small-leaved ones, and concentrate on the cultivar names.
Would Smell As Sweet...
Some durantas are grown primarily for foliage color, while others are noteworthy for their showy displays of golden-yellow berries. All durantas, though, have pretty 1/2" flowers in hanging clusters that are sweetly fragrant, especially in warm weather. Blooming throughout the year, they are one of the few flowers that attract both hummingbirds and butterflies (and also larger birds which may feed on the berries), and so are an excellent choice for accommodating these garden friends. Other "sweet" features of durantas include their ability to tolerate sun or shade (with the variegated ones looking best in part shade) and their actual preference for heavy soils (most will tolerate just about any soil and even a bit of drought). Frost hardiness varies, with the species D. erecta the hardiest (to around 20°F.) and the large-leaved types tender at 25-27°F. Durantas are very useful as fast-growing hedges and screens, and are easy to grow. They also are very adaptable to container culture – the colorfully foliaged ones in particular may be controlled at almost any size in pots, where they can be happy for many years.
So Pick Your Favorites –
Duranta erecta – This is the plant that I first saw in Santa Cruz, and you will occasionally see mature specimens of it in San Diego gardens. It has a dense foliage of 1-2" bright green leaves and grows into an arching 10-12' large shrub or small tree. Its 1/2" fragrant
lilac-blue flowers appear throughout the year in clusters, followed by a fine show of 1/2" golden-yellow berries. Most cultivars of this species have a dark blue stripe in the center of each flower petal, but different selections may have darker or lighter flowers. This species is by far the heaviest berry producer, which is good for ornament and good for the birds (most references, however, caution that the berries can be poisonous to humans if eaten – I'm not sure how poisonous, but I know that some cultures have used them medicinally. This is a good time to repeat the
always-important admonition that you should especially teach your children to never eat any ornamental plant or plant part, for there are probably a lot of plants in your garden right now that are much more dangerous than durantas!). Duranta erecta plants may be somewhat thorny along the stems (or not, depending on the cultivar grown), make great hedge, screen, or barrier plants, and are definitely the hardiest of all to cold.
Duranta erecta 'Alba' – This handsome large shrub or small tree is much like the species, but with pure white flowers. Material in local cultivation was originally taken from a plant at Quail Botanical Gardens which at the time was identified as D. lorentzii, and I'm still not sure which name is correct. It is an excellent grower and bloomer, and a fine background shrub – especially for a "white garden".
Duranta erecta 'Gold Tip' – This unusual selection is a compact shrub with bright yellow-gold foliage which was imported from Thailand by Gary Hammer around 10 years ago (Thailand seems to be the original source of a number of variegated durantas). Slow-growing to an eventual 5-6' tall and wide, it often stays quite low and compact for its first few years. Flowering and fruiting is not heavy, but the plant is a glowing ball of gold all year in either sun or part shade. In the winter, some foliage turns purple in cold weather for an interesting effect. Although leaf size is similar to the species, foliage may suffer damage in freezing temperatures. Whether you grow it in sun or shade, this plant is very effective as a gold accent plant in the mixed border.
Duranta erecta 'Variegata' – Despite the locally-used name for this one, it seems to have characteristics of both D. erecta and D.stenostachya, which is a larger-leaved species from Brazil. It's a tall shrub or small tree to 8’-10' with spiny stems and beautiful variegated foliage. Toothed leaves are 2-3" long and broadly edged and marked in creamy-white, flowers are lilac-blue, and berries are golden-yellow. This cultivar makes a handsome specimen plant in either full sun or part shade – like all of the variegated durantas its foliage may burn in hot sun, so it is better in part shade inland.
Duranta 'Gold Edge' – Possibly a hybrid, this beautiful large-leaved duranta has 2”-3” toothed leaves that are broadly edged and patterned with golden-yellow. It's more like D. stenostachya in its tropical look and upright growth, and so probably tender at around 27°F. Its ultimate size is probably 8’-10’, but it can be kept smaller by pruning. Its strikingly colorful foliage looks best in part shade. (This one may turn out to be the showiest-foliaged duranta of all!)
Duranta 'Sarasota' – This is an outstanding shrub introduced by Patrick Worley in the early 1980's, and is my personal favorite among all of the durantas. Patrick selected it from a group of over 100 seedlings in Sarasota, Florida – all presumed hybrids of D. stenostachya and D. erecta. A luxuriant foliage of 3”-4” bright green leaves makes this upright 6’-8’ shrub a great hedge or screen plant for a tropical look, and it grows very fast, giving good results within a year from planting. Its dark blue flowers are somewhat larger than other durantas, with a deep blue stripe in the center of each petal. More fragrant than other durantas, they have a sweet, sugary scent like cake batter or sugar-cookie dough, and are produced on long 6”-8” pendent clusters throughout the year. Golden-yellow berries follow the flowers, but are not heavily produced. Whether you grow this one in full sun or part shade, both vigor and hardiness are impressive – hummingbirds and butterflies are also impressed by the quality of its flowers' nectar.
Duranta 'Silver Lace' – Another Patrick Worley introduction from the early 1980's, this superb shrub might be thought of as a cream-variegated D. 'Sarasota'. Patrick obtained this one, however, from a grower in Hawaii, and I suspect it came originally from Thailand. Perhaps a variegated form of D. stenostachya itself, it is unsurpassed as a white-variegated background shrub in full or part shade. An upright shrub which grows gradually to an eventual 8' tall, its 3”-5” long leaves are broadly edged and patterned in creamy-white, making its foliage really "glow" in the shady border. Blue flowers are a bonus, appearing in hanging clusters throughout the year, with few berries produced. Vigor is outstanding for a variegated shrub, with hardiness probably around 25-27°F.
Duranta 'Variegated Mini Yellow' – Here's a relative newcomer from Thailand which looks to be a terrific dwarf foliage plant for garden or container. Gary Hammer brought it into California within the past few years, but I suspect other collectors have, as well (you might have guessed by now that a lot of new subtropical plants are developed in Thailand, and you're right!). Described by Gary as a "variegated 'Gold Tip'", it is so far a small 2' shrub with a beautiful reverse-variegation of 2" toothed leaves (another hybrid, perhaps) of lime-green broadly edged in dark green. Although I have not so far observed its flowering habits, its foliage is plenty good to simply recommend it for just that. I think it is beautiful alone or with companion plants in a container in part shade, but it also may eventually prove to be a great garden plant. The only thing it lacks is an official cultivar name – and hopefully it already has one that I'm not aware of – maybe the folks at the Del Mar Fairgrounds would like it if we called it “Jimmy” (so it could be the "Jimmy" Duranta!) (Sorry!)
Duranta 'White Lace' – This last duranta on my list is one that Patrick Worley received from a grower in Hawaii in the mid-1980's, again presumably originally from Thailand. Unlike most durantas, it was a very weak plant that was very sensitive to cold because it was so variegated and so dwarf. Although I no longer have it, I hope it is still in cultivation here, for it is a very pretty nearly-white plant. Best in a warm greenhouse, it grew to only 12" tall (in a container) when I knew it. It was like an ultra-small, ultra-white, ultra-weak 'Silver Lace' – but it does illustrate the great potential and diversity of durantas. (Happily, most all of them are much easier to grow than that!)
—And Try Something New!
Several years ago, the craze for "perennials" was the big news in San Diego horticulture. But things change, and there's always "something new" on the horizon that beckons us! Nowadays, many gardeners want shrubby plants that can fill their gardens or containers and live a long time without much maintenance. So for "something new" that's easy, showy and shrubby, isn't it time to try some Durantas in your
Member Steve Brigham’s columns highlight plants in bloom and other horticultural tidbits you won’t want to miss. Steve is a founding member of the SDHS and owner of Buena Creek Gardens in San Marcos.